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Lost and Injured for 58 Hours in Millard Canyon

In a two-part series, Patch tells the story of Akiva Estersohn, who suffered a traumatic head injury while lost for 58 hours in Millard Canyon.

went out for a hike on a Friday morning and expected to be gone for little more than an hour. Fifty-eight hours later he was found by local search and rescue teams with a gash in his head, sitting in the middle of a stream bed above the Millard Canyon Falls not far from the Sunset Ridge hiking trail.

Estersohn, who we initially reported about in a , told his story to Altadena Patch in an interview that lasted over an hour.

Remarkably, during Estersohn’s 58-hour ordeal, he was never really very far from his car or from the closest fire road or marked trail.  Altadena Mountain Rescue Team member Rich Deleon describes the falls where he was found as about a 20 minute walk from the Mt. Lowe Fire Road.  A 40-minute walk down that road would have taken Estersohn back to his car.

Estersohn was above those falls for a good part of the time he was lost, but even then he could still see the fire road he wanted to get to when he was at a high vantage point.  At one point, he even could hear other hikers down on lower trails.   But none of that mattered for Estersohn: for more than two days he might as well as have been stuck in the middle of the Sierra Nevadas.

A Routine Hike

Estersohn, a 48-year-old San Diego resident, is familiar with the hiking trails around Millard Canyon – he has lived in L.A. County and has hiked around the Chaney Trail area on and off since 1990.  Friday morning’s hike was routine enough that he broke a cardinal rule of hiking: he did not tell anybody where he was going.

His expectations were that it would be a simple hike and that’s how it started: a routine walk along the Sunset Ridge trail, starting up the Mt. Lowe Fire Road. 

His plan was to break off Sunset Ridge, and walk up the Millard Creek stream bed and try to catch a loop trail back up to the fire road that he had used before.  The stream bed is used by other hikers in the area who are trying to reach the Dawn Mine and there are some informal trails there.

But Estersohn missed his chance to loop back up to the fire road.  And yet, he persisted in believing it was ahead of him, even though it was behind him.

 “I continued on the stream believing there is another trail up to the fire road,” Estersohn said. 

And though it seems irrational to him now, when Estersohn arrived at a water fall that effectively blocked him from walking any further, he still kept thinking a trail he had taken once before must be beyond it, even though he did not recall ever climbing up the water fall.

 “I was thinking there must be a trail up to the fire road up beyond the falls” Estersohn said.

So Estersohn made a decision he would regret almost instantly: he began to climb the falls, eventually using a rope that was tethered to rock near the top of the falls.  But when he made it to the top he realized very quickly that he could not go safely back down: he was not comfortable returning that way.

And so after walking around above the falls for a while and not finding any marked trail that would take him to the fire road, Estersohn realized he was stuck.

The Fall

Logically, if he was not going to be able to go down, the only way out of the canyon was to climb up.  So that’s what Estersohn did.

For much of Friday, Estersohn climbed and tried to make it up steep hills, and kept finding the higher he got, the more difficult the climbing got.

The soil was loose and he kept slipping, falling and sliding.  His pants began to rip to shreds from all the scraping against brush and the ground.

At this point, it was late afternoon on Friday and Estersohn was not sure if he would be able to find a way out.  Then things got much worse: Estersohn, on a slope he described as ‘near vertical’ was trying to move to a place where things were less steep.  Suddenly, the loose soil gave way and Estersohn fell backwards, tumbling and turning.

He hit his head hard on rock.

“I might have lost consciousness for a moment.  I found myself on all fours on an unstable position.  I was stunned, I was terrified,” Estersohn said. “I could not believe a human being could sustain that kind of impact.”

He lay there, dazed.  And then he realized the gravity of his injury.

“There was a lot of blood.  There was blood all over my shirt.  And I looked at it and thought I better get up,” Estersohn said.

So Estersohn kept trying to climb.  He figured that nothing had changed: he still needed to get out of there.  Nobody knew where he was.  And he still did not want to climb back down the way he came.

Shortly before sunset, he thought he had found a way to get out.   He had been checking his cell phone all day to see if he got a signal, without luck. 

Estersohn, a practicing Jew, was staying with friends in Los Angeles for the Purim holiday.

He knew his friends were going to miss him by the end of the day, and he did not want them panicking.

“I didn't want everyone turning the world upside down to find me,” Estersohn said.

After his fall, though, there was no question he would call for help if he could get a signal.  Late in the day, he checked his phone and found that it had downloaded voice messages with his friends phone number – they had called him, worried that he had been gone all day without leaving word.

But in a cruel twist, his cell phone did not register a signal.  At one point he had crossed into an area where he got reception long enough to download the messages.  But he had been climbing all over the place and he had no idea where he had picked up the signal.

As it got dark, Estersohn decided to find shelter.  He was more prepared than most casual day hikers: he had an emergency space blanket which would help keep him warm.  He found an outcropping under a ledge and managed to pull the space blanket taught around it to seal in warm air.

He stayed relatively warm over night, but he had no food and no fresh water.  He awoke in the morning to find that pulling the space blanket so tightly around him had resulted in it being torn into pieces.

The Second Day

Much of the second day passed like the first, climbing searching for a signal, and trying to get up  to the fire road.

On Saturday, Estersohn had a tough reminder of exactly how close to civilization he was.  He reached high enough on a cliff to see the fire road he wanted to reach, but it was far enough away that he would have to continue to move over rough terrain to get there.   There was no clear path to get to the road.

What’s more, he was high up enough that he could hear other hikers and noises below.

“I could hear car doors slamming, people laughing,” Estersohn said.

He used an emergency whistle to try to signal ‘SOS’.  He used  a mirror in his compass to try to flash a signal to anyone who might be looking below.  And then, he began to yell.  He yelled for help, both in English and Spanish.  He yelled for as long as he could. 

And as far as he knows, nobody heard.  The search for Estersohn would not begin for another 24 hours, so it is doubtful anybody heard him.  Or if they did, they did not know he was yelling for help.

By the time he was done yelling, it was again getting later in the day.  Estersohn felt extremely dehydrated.  He was worried he would have to camp again.  He wanted badly to get back down to the stream where he could drink.  He had left his space blanket behind where he camped the first night, thinking there was no way he would get stuck for another.

So he gave up trying to get out, and went back down into the canyon to camp. He used the space blanket pieces and sheltered as best he could for a second night in the wilderness.

It was not an easy night – Estersohn was woken up by loud howling.  He wondered if it was a mountain lion.  Perhaps it was a coyote.  Whatever it was, it was close.  He lay still.  But he did not do anything about it.  In his words, he was “too tired to be scared.”

People later pointed out, Estersohn said, that with dried blood all over him, he might have been of interest to a wild animal looking around for food.

He had dreams – strange dreams, dreams that he might be rescued.  He dreamt there was a ranger nearby with a dog, and that all he had to do was climb again and he would find a nearby cabin.  He would be safe in the cabin and then he would be rescued.  The dreams felt real to him.

But in reality, he still had a very tough and dangerous day ahead of him before he would be found.

Check the site tomorrow for the rest of Estersohn's story: his struggle to find a way to get back down, his rescue and more.

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